Okay, I admit it. We’re old. No spring chickens in our roost. Even if we didn’t realize we had passed the “forever young” age, our kids have kept us informed. Right before COVID-19 hit, they sat us down to have the power-of-attorney talk. That we’d laughed in their faces shocked them.
“We’re just trying to be helpful,” our daughter said.
“We want to make sure you’re okay,” our son said.
“We’ll let you know when we’re not,” my husband said.
He shot a seventy-one that day, beating our son by two strokes. Meanwhile, our daughter had trouble keeping up with me on our walk.
Three years later, the whole family came to visit us on the Big Island of Hawaii during winter break. By their solicitude, we could tell our children thought we were one step away from assisted living, if not the grave. It was unnerving, although, somehow, I was the only one doing the dishes.
While they were there, the Kilauea Volcano erupted. Newsweek calls Kilauea “One of the Earth’s most active volcanoes . . . and one of the most dangerous.” Our twenty-three-year-old grandson and his girlfriend decided to go see it. They came back with a glowing report of their experience.
“You should go,” Evan said, showing us photos of golden-red ripples of lava in a lake at the bottom of the Halemaumau Crater.
“We hiked a mile into viewing site three, but there’s other viewing sites you could get to easier,” Amanda assured us.
A week later, my husband and I decided to go see this natural phenomenon for ourselves. It’s about a two-hour drive on the Daniel K. Inouye Highway. Since the best viewing is in the dark, we decided to stay overnight at Volcano House.
The mountain pass can be treacherous with dense fog and rain, but the day we went, it was clear. The snowcapped peaks of Mauna Kea were to our left. Mauna Loa, graceful with a dusting of snow, was on our right.
We pulled into the parking lot of Volcano House at about two-thirty. The hotel is right at the rim of the volcano. Mark Twain stayed at the original Volcano House in 1866, but this hotel was built in 1941. When we checked in, the receptionist was very knowledgeable. She gave us advice and a map showing where the viewing sites were located.
I couldn’t help wondering what she saw when she looked at us: two old fogeys who should know better, or just two people being tourists?
In the dining room, while we ate lunch, we looked over the map.
“We’re doing viewing site three, the one the kids did,” he said. “The one with the hike.”
“Understood,” I said. The gauntlet had been thrown down.
After a healthy lunch of Coke, pizza, and french fries, we set out for Devastation Point. We arrived there at about four fifteen. Once we were out of the car, I saw a park ranger standing in front of a huge sign that said “Eruption Viewing This Way”.
“Is this where we go to see the eruption?” I asked him as I got close. I have a terrible sense of direction, so I thought I’d check.
He looked us over. “Yes, it is. But do you think you’re up to the hike there?”
“Isn’t it only a mile?” I asked.
“A mile each way,” he cautioned.
“Is it rocky and steep?” my husband asked.
“No, it’s a regular road until you get to the site. Then there’s some gravel.”
“No worries. We can make it, and besides, we have our phones,” I assured him.
He still looked dubious but finally nodded. “Okay, I’m just checking because we had a fatality yesterday.”
I laughed as we walked around the barrier. “I think he’s just trying to discourage us old folks. He probably doesn’t want to do any kind of rescue,” I told my husband.
(Two days later, I read this online: “Hawaii News Now—A visitor from Arizona died Sunday at a lava viewing area at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, officials said. A spokeswoman said the seventy-year-old died from apparent natural causes at the Keanakakoi lava viewing overlook.”)
It was an easy mile to the Keanakakoi lava overlook. When we got there, we joined the small group of people who were at the edge of the viewing site, looking down at the lava lake in the center of the immense caldera. Since it was daylight, you couldn’t see much of the molten lava’s color.
As the sky darkened, the lava’s orange glow became more apparent until we were looking at landscape crisscrossed by deep veins of lava. Pele, the goddess of fire, had been very busy. It was as if the elements of the Earth were being revealed. I wish the word “awesome” was not so overused because that’s what the site was—awe-inspiring.
In 1866, Mark Twain described it like this: “The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink . . .but a mile of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky.”
“It looks like Los Angeles at night when you’re coming in for landing,” my husband mused in 2023.
Then he started dialing his phone. In a moment, our son appeared on the screen.
“Guess where we are,” my husband said and turned the camera so Dave could see the lava.
“Wow,” Dave said, then asked, “How did you get there?”
“We hiked here. This is the site that Amanda and Evan went to,” I said.
I rolled my eyes. “We’re not decrepit yet,” I wanted to say.
When the sun set, the temperature dropped quickly. Our grandkids had warned us, so we had parkas, although most of our fellow viewers were shivering with cold. But we were all mesmerized by the incredible sight.
When some people started to leave, my husband said we should join them.
“We should navigate up the gravel path while there’s still light,” he said.
I was reluctant to leave, but it was a good decision—it was completely dark by the time we made it to the road. With no moon to guide us through the forest, Mark Twain’s expression “black as ink” came to mind. Fortunately, I had a flashlight.
My husband’s knees had stiffened up in the cold, so he was having a hard time walking.
“I don’t know if I can do it,” he said.
“We can go slow and take breaks, but you are doing it,” I said in my schoolteacher’s voice. “First of all, you don’t have another choice, and secondly, we’re not going to let the kids think we can’t.”
As we walked, he limbered up, but we were both glad to see the lights of the ranger station ahead of us. We drove back to Volcano House with the heater blasting.
During a dinner of seared Kona Kampachi, we looked through the photos we’d taken. We remembered that overwhelming feeling of reverence we’d experienced.
“I’m so glad we did this,” I said, “Not only because it was so incredible, but sometimes I start believing in the kids’ viewpoint of us, and I think I am on my last legs.”
My husband gave me a wink. “I love your legs,” he said, and took my hand.
Cyndy Muscatel has written for several publications including The Seattle Times. A former English teacher, her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have been published in many journals including The MacGuffin, Main Street Rag, North Atlantic Review, Quercus Review, riverSedge, descant, Existere, and Jet Fuel Review. Her collection of published short stories “Radio Days” is available on Amazon. She is working on a memoir of her years teaching in the inner city of Seattle during the Sixties.